I have been experimenting with panoramic photography for the last few weeks and I wanted to share some of the things I have learned and offer some tips for anyone wanting to learn how to take panoramic photos. This isn’t a comprehensive panorama tutorial, but it should cover the basics and point you in the direction of panoramic websites where you can learn more.
Panoramic photography can be breathtaking. Even really wide angle lenses can’t come close to showing the range of view that you can get with a true panorama. The shot at the top of this page shows a 360 degree panoramic shot. Another method is to take a 360 degree shot by 180 degrees that results in a complete view of your surroundings. Once you have a 360×180 image there are some really interesting things you can do with them. For example, the shot to the right demonstrates a stereographic projection that is created from a panorama. Anther applications for a panorama include Quicktime VR’s which allow you to scroll up, down, and around the image as if you were standing in that spot. So how do you create panoramic photos?
Step 1: Taking the Photos
The first thing you need to know about panoramic photography is that it usually involves taking multiple photos and “stitching” them together into a single shot. While there are expensive cameras with swinging lenses, most panorama photos are made with ordinary cameras. You take lots of photos until you have taken a photo of your complete surroundings. Rather than just going crazy shooting photos in every direction it is a good idea to use a system that will make it easy to assemble the photos later.
In order to improve your chances of having images that will work optimally for stitching together you should definitely consider purchasing a high quality tripod. It is possible to hand hold your camera, but this really increases your chances of having images that don’t stitch together nicely. A normal tripod should work well for single row 360 degree shots. If you are taking multiple row, 360×180 shots you should consider purchasing a panoramic head.
A panoramic tripod head will allow you to move your camera in specific increments until you have completed the full 360. Each photo you take should overlap the shot you took previously. The overlap is important because this redundant data is what the software will use to stitch the photos together later. With my Panasonic Lumix LX3 (which has a pretty wide lens) I can capture a 360×180 degree image by taking 38 photos. That translates into 3 rows of 12 images and a photo for the ground and another photo of the sky straight above. I use the markings on my tripod to know how to turn the camera 30 degrees.
A panoramic tripod head can be an expensive investment. The Nodal Ninja tripod heads get great praise, but they are cost hundreds of dollars. A cheaper option is the Panosaurus that costs about $80. If you are the do-it-yourself type like me, you can build your own. I had some old tripod parts lying around so I decided to build my own panoramic tripod head.
The photo below shows my DIY panoramic tripod head.
This looks intimidating, but once you understand how a panoramic head works it isn’t that bad. The purpose of the head is to position your camera so that the “nodal point” of the camera stays in the same place no matter which direction the camera is pointing. What is a nodal point you ask? You can read the technical definition on wikipedia, but in general terms, this is the point of the camera lens that your camera will rotate around to produce images that aren’t distorted. If you simply rotate a normal tripod the nodal point will be different for each shot causing distortion. You can find the nodal point of your lens following the tutorial here. Don’t obsess over this, because as long as you are close you should be in good shape. Most likely, the nodal point of your camera is towards the front of the lens. There is a good thread on Flickr where you can see a bunch of DIY panoramic tripod heads that should give you some inspiration.
Step 2: Stitching the Photos Together
Once you have the photos taken it is time to create the panorama. Stitching multiple photos together presents some challenges. First of all you need some software. I use Hugin because it is free and has some advanced features. I haven’t used any of the other panorama photo stitcher software options out there, but search the internet and you should be able to see some of the other options out there.
Before you commit to learning Hugin, I should warn you that it wasn’t very easy to get it working for me. I am on a Mac running Snow Leopard and it took some work getting it installed and running. I ended up using MacPorts to help install the autopano-sift-c software required to run Hugin.
Once I had Hugin installed, learning Hugin presented its own challenges. I am the kind of person that jumps right into software without much training, so if you follow some tutorials online you might pick it up quicker than I did. Check out the Hugin Flickr group for additional info.
I hope this post was enough to get you interested in panoramic photography. There are plenty of great resources online if you are looking for more information. My advice would be to join Flickr and plug in to the many groups and passionate users creating panoramic images. There are lots of tutorials on Flickr and most people are more than willing to help out other photographers. Good luck!